No one in American public life has more disdain for experts and their expertise than President Donald Trump. And yet … there he was in late August, on the south portico of the White House (a “dump,” he had called it a week earlier) looking at a near-total eclipse of the sun without special glasses.
Similarly, there was Trump four days after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston with unprecedented (for that city) flooding, seeking photo opportunities where he could find them. The same thing in Florida after Hurricane Irma, the strongest ever to hit that state.
What do those appearances have to do with scientists and their expertise? Trump was only on his back porch to view the eclipse because astronomers forecast decades earlier that there would be one at the precise moment he emerged from the Oval Office to join his wife (who wore glasses recommended by experts) and his young son (who did not).
It turned out science was right – to the precise second.
It was similar in Texas. Experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted decades ago that a gigantic flood could occur in and around Houston, which they called a “huge city built on a very flat flood plain.” When it happened, Trump responded without mentioning those very accurate experts.
Other scientists for years have warned that hurricanes striking America will be increasingly severe because of the climate change roiling weather patterns everywhere on earth. Trump disdained that prediction, cut the budget of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and then – when it came true – milked the scene for all the positive publicity he could.
Just a week or so before Harvey, Trump revoked a Barack Obama-era regulation increasing standards for post-flood reconstruction that uses federal money. Among other items, the rule called for such construction to be elevated beyond the reach of possible flood waters. Insisting he knows more than the experts who pushed Obama for that regulation, Trump called it a “job killer.”
“No longer,” he said, “will there be one job-killing delay after another.” But experts in Houston during the height of Harvey warned that rebuilding a city of hodgepodge zoning and disorganized building codes without requiring changes like higher foundations would invite a repeat catastrophe that could waste billions of tax dollars.
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Trump, as usual, ignored the experts, just like he did while pulling America out of the Paris climate change accord. Like many skeptics with more faith in their unfounded opinions than in scientific research, he criticizes experts if they’re occasionally wrong, but never credits them on the far-more-frequent occasions when they are precisely on the mark, as with the eclipse.
It’s part of an anti-intellectual trend that also sees millions of Americans believing higher education moves the country in the “wrong direction.” A survey released the other day by the Public Policy Institute of California, for example, found 72 percent of the state’s Republicans believe universities are a negative influence. Forty percent of Democrats felt the same.
A similar national poll by Florida’s Pew Research Center found 58 percent of Republicans and voters who lean GOP believe colleges and universities have a negative effect, while 72 percent of Democrats believe the opposite.
Trump’s base voters, then, share his extreme skepticism of experts and science, especially when those experts – mostly academics – recommend measures that might tap their wallets.
California is fortunate such skeptics do not control policy here. For Californians must respond to warnings about unreinforced construction that could cause myriad deaths and many billions of dollars in property damage in a very large earthquake. Other experts, meanwhile, warn such a quake is long overdue on the San Andreas Fault, which runs through or near California’s largest population centers.
Because California doesn’t buy into the current trend to skepticism, programs are underway around the state to retrofit older buildings, roads and bridges. Nature will decide whether those programs are comprehensive or quick enough to mitigate disasters.
The bottom line: As long as Trump’s base agrees with him that science means less than their own opinions, he will only take advantage of expertise that’s convenient and cheap to follow up on. As Houston and Florida demonstrated, this will very likely mean a lot of unnecessary future deaths and damage.